Sunday, May 20, 2012

Some critical questions about iPads and 1-1 learning

Note: I’ve been sitting on this post for roughly three months now, but was inspired by this weekend’s Maker Faire here in the San Francisco Bay Area to hit the publish button. As I walked about Maker Faire I became re-energized by the amazing things people are creating with computer technology. Most, if not all, of the computing related objects that these extraordinary inventors, artists, creators, and DIYers shared were not created with iPads or mobile technologies of any form. They used Linux, Windows, and OS X. 


Ever since leading a 16 person iPad study group during the 2011-2012 school year at my previous site, I’ve grown more skeptical of iPad 1-1 learning models (eg, giving every student in a school/district an iPad). Over the past 18 months I’ve visited ‘iPad’ schools, attended a range of iPads in schools workshops, and participated in online conversations of all forms regarding this platform. Conversations tend to center around apps, how the devices are going to be insured, the ‘best’ apps for for _________ purpose, etc. Most of what I’ve seen and heard described are learning experiences that could easily be done with less expensive technologies, including a piece of paper and a pencil. The focus of these conversations leaves me feeling a bit empty and filled with questions about whether or not this approach is doing right by the kids we serve.

Here are some questions I have for anyone in the edtech community that has taken their school down the path of 1-1 learning with iPads:

Does giving every student an iPad mitigate or exacerbate issues of equity in our school communities?
Many school communities, by virtue of assigning every student a school owned laptop, would submit that this model addresses issues of equity. I’m not convinced. For some students attending an ‘iPad 1-1 school,’ the iPad will be their only computer. If the iPad is a student’s sole computer, what sort of opportunities are they missing out on? A huge learning opportunity they are missing out on is coding and controlling peripherals of all forms. These students will be unable to write and create executable code or run multimedia programming applications like Alice, Scratch, and Visual Python. Alternately, kids who have a primary laptop/desktop computer at home will be able to engage in these powerful learning activities. Is this promoting the kind of equity we aim to address with 1-1 learning?

iPads are often times promoted as being really ‘easy’ to use. Is this true? And is ‘easy’ what we really want?
I find myself constantly setting my iPad aside in favor of my laptop to do a wide range of simple tasks that I find cumbersome on the iPad. Even a simple task like multi-tabbed browsing on my iPad1 is clumsy at best. How about collaborating in small teams and loading raw source video, audio, and even photos that are not created on the iPad itself? I’ve found this process to be much more difficult than it needs to be. Finally, is ‘easy’ what we are really after? Some of the most complex and sophisticated tasks that we can do with computers are really hard. Working with scientific probeware peripherals, programming physical microprocessors (eg arduino and gogo boards), building robots (lego nxt), controlling 3D printers, crunching complex heaps of data, etc. are all complex tasks for the classroom. Many of these incredibly rich and rewarding learning experiences aren’t accessible on the iPad. Do we shy away from difficult experiences like these because they aren’t ‘easy’? I hope not.

What are the learning dispositions we aim to foster in our students and school community and is going all-in with iPads going to help us build these dispositions?
I want to help empower our learning community to design, hack, build, collaborate, remix, share and explore in all sorts of ways. In essence, I strive to contribute toward building a learning community that is open-source, accessible and inspired by principles of DIY. Is the iPad the best platform for cultivating such an ideal?

Are iPads the best use of our precious school funds?
Because owning an iPad is like owning a highly mobile vending machine, it is difficult to quantify the total cost of ownership. Many schools that are heading in this direction are purchasing the 64 gig models ($699) along with keyboards, apps, insurance, and other accessories. This amounts to a significant financial investment. It is even more significant when you consider that many schools are looking at upgrading every 2-3 years. A laptop will last four years. What are the opportunities costs of such an investment?

How are iPads helping your students participate in the long tail of invention, creation and manufacturing (the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ as some have called it)?
Shopbots, laser cutters, 3D printers, etc are bringing tools that were once only available to a few corporations to the creative class. iPads don’t interface with these devices. Have you given this some thought?

And a question for the adults in your community who were involved in making this decision: Are you making the iPad your primary computer? If so, kudos for eating the same dog food that you are serving up. If not, why not? Why is the iPad good enough to be used by youth as their primary computer but not good enough to be used for your primary computer? If the device that is revolutionizing the world before our very eyes isn’t good enough to be used as your primary/sole computer, why is it good enough for kids who want to hack, remix, code, print to 3D, and create amazing representations of their learning?

Did you ask the students about their preferences?
I have and as one might expect, students are all over the map in terms of their preferences for mobile computers. While a good number of students certainly are Apple fans, many are already comfortable using other computing platforms in creative ways. Ask the students and you might be surprised with the thoughts they share with you.

I hope this doesn’t come off like I’m anti-iPad or a technology curmudgeon. I’m not. I love my iPad for niche uses and feel like it could be a useful devices for *some* students. I also realize things change quickly in technology and we all may be using touch interface tablets at some point in the future. But we aren’t there yet. I’m legitimately interested in any answers to these questions. I’m also interested in other critical questions that we should be asking about going 1-1 with the iPad platform.


  1. Anonymous10:51 PM

    Sorry I did not see you at the Maker Fair. we had a Castilleja booth with projects from our fab lab. Good questions, i don't have answers, but I do think there are opportunities as well as risks with tablets. We will see!

  2. hi Matt, you raise so many important questions. would love to discuss together. another fundamental question that i grapple with often is, "how do one's habits of mind and practices influence one's use of devices and vice versa?"

    1. Flaurie, such a great question. It leads me to ask the question, "How do closed and sealed systems impact our willingness to tinker, explore, break, and fix stuff?" Clearly in the area of automobiles closed systems have facilitated a more passive approach toward end user maintenance and tinkering. I presume that closed computer systems have a similar effect. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Matt,
    I cannot tell you how much I appreciated your blog post this morning. Honestly, many of the questions that you raised have crossed though my mind time and time again. So thank you...two questions that really stuck out in my mind were: iPads as teacher's everyday devices - granted it is hard to use the device as a stand along piece. However, with strides just in the past year the iPad has come along way. Not having to marry to a computer for updates, using iCloud to sync documents across many mobile devices and I view that as only getting better and better. The more time that teachers and administrator spend with the iPad, the more comfortable they will become. As for thing that I really do not like hearing is that the students get it. And then we think that we as teachers can rely on the kids to solve all the problems. That is not true. I am not saying that the teachers need to be the master of the ipad...impossible.
    The second question is the ease of use question: No, it is not easy to use...and I have been telling my faculty that we need to "un-learn" somethings. I feel that we are taking the easy way out if we stick with laptops. Learning new ways to come up with solutions in a very creative and inexpensive way is what I think the iPad is all about. Granted if you add in all the extras like a keyboard, case, and other add ons, it isn't cheap any longer. We are in this thing for 2 years. 5th and 6th graders using iPads for 2 years. 7th and 8th graders using MacBooks. Already teachers in 7th and 8th grade are coming to me asking why didn't we go with iPads for them. From the time that we made the decision last spring to now this platform has evolved and I don't see it stoping.
    I love you, man!

    1. I think that this post answers the question of why you might not want to go with an iPad for 7th and 8th graders. It's the great, still new thing, but it just can't accomplish what a computer can. I believe there are tablet computers that are more suitable, if you must have one. I don't use one myself, but I have helped a friend or two use it; my sister only does email, web browsing, and watching videos so (the entry level) it's perfect for her. But if you want to do some real computing, as Matt mentions, it lacks a lot, and gets pretty expensive. Moving up to a laptop, as you move up into MS, sounds like it's the better way to go.

      Great post Matt.. lots to think about.

  4. Great post Matt.
    A few things stand out for me. First, we need the right tool for the job. Just like we don't use a ruler to write on paper, there are some tasks that are better on a tablet and some jobs that are simpler or better using a computer. Like you, I find some of the day to day things that I do in multi-task mode easier on a computer than an iPad. I do worry about how creative students can be, and right now I feel like students have more options to create on the computer. Tom mentioned all the ways the iPad has changed in a very short time, and I do imagine they will be very different machines in the future. One thing to note is that iPads were designed as personal devices, so I think that the regimentation of rolling them out in a school environment has sort of gone against what the iPad stands for as a device.
    I love what you say about the adults making the decision. I hope that students are sitting on school technology committees! I recently asked our high school students (we have had 1:1 laptops for 8 years) and they feel pretty strongly that the iPad would not meet their needs. They voiced that they thought it is much more suitable for elementary students. At the moment, I am taking their advice.

  5. Sad to think all the 1:1 iPad deployments you visited didn't roll it out as one good new tool among many - a hybrid ICT approach with a range of devices that students then choose from is perhaps the best model I have ever seen. Having said that, its also useful to consider that the iPad is less a computer replacement than a whole new device that can do new things not available before - are schools identifying and implementing these? Or just trying to shoehorn it to fit into traditional pedagogies...

    1. Hey JN, my bias is toward a user 'BYOD,' so it won't be a surprise that your comment resonates with me strongly. I think that an iPad could be an effective device for *some* users, as long as they have something that runs a full OS for engaging in pedagogically rich experiences like creating code, programming physical devices, digital fabrication, etc. I see it as a limiting solution for one size fits all 1-1 learning models.

  6. Matt,
    We've been tossing around these same concerns at La Salle Prep this whole school year and are on the verge of making some type of iPad vs. laptop decision for faculty. While I agree the iPad isn't a perfect solution -- it might be the transitional device to give to teachers to move them towards embracing technology for eBooks, classroom management tools, content creation, and collaboration -- all wrapped up in a quick access mobile device that they can claim as their own. The teachers at our school are tied to desktop machines and with enrollment growth we need to transition to department classrooms & offices. I wish that other companies had the same caliber apps and academic support as Apple does but it just isn't there yet.

    Once we transition our staff with a personal device we will then consider the 1:1 option for our students. Hopefully by the time we are ready for this -- students will have multiple BYOD options.

    Thanks for the discussion - Colette

    1. Hey Colette, thanks for the comment. Have you considered giving faculty the opportunity to choose? We're actually heading in the direction of giving our faculty members a stipend every four years to purchase the technology mix that best fits their needs. We weren't able to get the for the coming year, but we are offering faculty a menu of options to replace their old Dell tablet laptops. The options that we're making available are posted at:

    2. Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your post and opening up the conversation here. At my school, we are starting to think about what the iPad platform might do as opposed to the Tablet PC platform we are already using for our student 1:1.

      I have a somewhat tangential question. Having a menu of options for faculty to choose from is an interesting idea so I took a look at the choices you are offering. I suspect the ability to choose between and Mac and Windows platform is appealing to teachers. However, I'm curious as to why you are offering both the traditional (Dell) laptops and the (Lenovo) Tablet PC when the later does everything you can do on the former. What do you think is the difference for teachers? Is it just the option of a slightly larger screen (12.5" vs 14")? From the specifications you posted the traditional laptops are also a little less powerful on the processor spec (i3 vs i5) and have smaller hard drives.

      One disadvantage to hardware choice is logistical efficiency in repair (such being able to stock common parts) and maintenance (such as managing disk images). There is no way around that for the Mac/Windows choice, but I'm curious about the reasons for choice on the Windows side.

    3. Hey Bill,
      We have 30 faculty members who are up for a computer replacement this summer - they were all given dell tablets four years ago. What we've seen is that only a handful ever made use of the tablet functionality (it sort of parallels what I've seen in schools with smartboards, actually). We're keeping the tablet as an option because 1-2 of our users have really invested time in making that platform work for their needs. We're offering two different dell clamshell options based upon personal preferences - some users want the larger screen and don't mind the extra weight, while some users desire a smaller form factor for better portability.

      Regarding the specs: we are choosing these specs due to budgetary constraints. On average we are targeting ~1300/computer, including the three year warranty.

      And yes, there certainly are disadvantages to this approach as you suggest and I share those concerns. We really wanted to shift toward pure BYOD and real end user ownership via a technology stipend, but we just weren't able to make that happen for this replacement cycle.

      While we didn't get the full ownership model that we intended, we think that by providing choice are users will feel a greater sense of agency and empowerment with their devices.

      We'll see what happens. I acknowledge that there is a risk with this model.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. Thank you so much for this post ( I am bookmarking it).

    As someone who majored in computer science and is a big fan of Open Source and tinkering, I have a lot of reservations about a mass adoption of something that is a closed/proprietary device and something that is not capable of more technical/creative activities. I see the iPad as a great device to consume and interact with information and media, but definitely not the greatest device for creating and coding - this worries me.

    The access/equity issue concerns me, too. I am watching the funding of web-based academic resources getting pulled because "we are going to iPads." But, unless those iPads go home with students, the apps stay on the iPad.

    Another thing that disturbs me that I haven't seen addressed much are the free apps that display ads while you are using them. Our districts are strapped for cash, so they are buying iPads but not apps and telling teachers to "find free ones." Unfortunately, the free ones usually come with ads. Pair this with an Apple TV and you are basically running a constant stream of advertisements to a captive audience of children. This seems extremely unethical to me.

    I would love to hear what others think about this. I really do want to get excited about iPads, but I share a lot of the concerns you wrote about here. Thanks again for shining a light on the questions I am not seeing enough of us asking right now.